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Wednesday, May 02, 2007


In defense of call center drones

This morning Ben Popken of The Consumerist, a popular consumer activist blog, dropped me a brief comment in response to something I wrote last week. I made an assumption about his experience in the customer service industry and I was wrong. Ben, if you're out there reading this, sorry about that.

I don't write about my place of employment on this blog because a: it could get me fired and b: my job is much less interesting than tedious anecdotes about playing tennis (believe it or not). Without revealing too much, I work in a call center. if you live in the Willamette Valley there's a fairly good chance you've talked to me on the phone and let's leave it at that.

When I first heard about a contest on The Consumerist to record customer service calls and mock them on the internet, I cringed. I first heard about it in a memo that was passed around my workplace by management. We were to be on our guard because, at any moment, a random caller could be recording a conversation and attempt to goad us into losing our tempers as part of an effort to win a copy of Quicken (or, possibly, a toygar) from Popken and his call center hating cronies. The title of a recent post claimed that one company's call center was "staffed by retards" because a single customer had a bad experience. Nice.

I've been in this business for a while now for reasons that should be obvious (I'm currently 0 for 2 in the "do what you love" department). I've been on both sides of the phone. I could tell you about a completely wasted two hours I spent on the phone with Apple's tech support one recent Saturday but I could also offer you a hypothesis as to why it happened, unlike the reactionary posts on The Consumerist. For what it's worth, they did run a retort written by one frustrated (and overly frank) service rep. It received over eighty replies from readers, many of them filled with vitriol and insults and eager to see the anonymous rep fired for the post. If you follow that link and agree with these sentiments, please keep reading.

It should come as no surprise that call center reps, while they're better paid than you might imagine, are often poorly trained. Plus, the average rep is heavily monitored and their job performance is rated and ranked by a series of metrics, stats and goals that would make most people's heads explode. There's a good chance that the rep you're speaking to when you call Company X, regardless if they're sitting a block away or in Bombay, has to worry about: keeping the call under a certain length of time, solving your problem, keeping their voice cheery, other corporate competitors, getting mocked by their fellow employees once the week's stats are posted on a board where everyone can see them, the ringing in their ears from spending 40 hours a week with a headset on and, as the upper brass would have it, selling you more services and/or products you don't want and/or don't need. It's stressful work and just about the most unpleasant job you could ever hope to find in a cubicle, short of doing phone surveys or outsource sales.

Turnover is high. Most people don't last long in this biz. It's not the sort of job you dream about after wasting four years and tens of thousands of dollars on a college degree. I've had friends on unemployment turn up their noses at a full-time job with benefits in my workplace, settling instead for part time temp labor that pays much less. One colleague opted to take a job handling blood and sweat-soaked activewear returns at Nike than apply for a position at my company.

As such, I don't understand why The Consumerist is going after those of us on the front lines. We're not the problem and that even goes for the AOL rep that refused to cancel a customer's account in that old You Tube video. That guy was probably just following company protocol and he was fired for it after AOL received a bit of bad publicity.

As Ice-T once opined, "don't hate the playa', hate the game." My coworkers and I don't make up the policies that are driving you and other customers crazy. We're not the ones that designed that annoying "phone tree" you have to spend dozens of minutes circumnavigating before you speak to a human being. And we definitely don't have a say in rate hikes. It's not like middle-managers come to us every year to ask our opinions on wether or not our company should jack up the price of your service. We're just the poor, dumb schmucks that were unlucky enough to find ourselves enforcing our companies' policies. Arguing with us is akin to bickering with a traffic cop about a posted speed limit or a teenager at a gas station about the price of a gallon of unleaded. Just like you, we're trying to earn a paycheck but we weren't lucky (or, yes, smart or motivated) enough to catch the breaks needed to land a decent gig in this big, bad world.

So, please, think of all of this before you decide to tear into someone working the phones at the electric company over an outage they had nothing to do with or a rep at your cell provider because you're too lazy to read an instruction book and figure out how to set up your voice mail. As for The Consumerist, instead of petty muckraking, a better use of their time would be to go after middle-management, corporate policy makers and those really responsible for the poor customer service you've been receiving all these years.

Thanks for the great blog on In defense of call center drones. I own a http://www.outsourcingpros.com/Portland-Oregon-Call-Center/32 Portland Oregon Call Center and I'm sure my employees and I will find your information very helpful. Keep up the good work.
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